How to build customer profiles that help you make decisions

How to build customer profiles that help you make decisions

People always mess things up.

There’s a relatively clear path for designing technical systems that function. You learn the laws of physics, software languages, and manufacturing techniques. You follow standard patterns and look to past designs and nature for inspiration. You model, build, and test your solution, working within constraints.

Then people don’t buy the product. They don’t use it even if they bought it. They don’t understand it or share it. Or they use it in unexpected ways.

In a drive to be more “customer-centric” or “human-centered” with our business and products, we sometimes turn to creating customer profiles, personas, or avatars. The idea is that by reminding ourselves of our target user, we’ll be able to design better products, services, and systems.

There’s a range of recommendations out there on how to structure your knowledge about customers. Not all formats are created equal, however.

Some customer templates are lackluster. They include a generic stock photo with demographics and details that can seem more like it was plucked out of an infomercial than a description of a real person.

Referencing back to the profile can be helpful if you’re way off track. But does it tell you what to build? Most don’t.

Real people are more interesting than the static profiles would make them seem. They’re complicated. They had a life before they found your business and they will after. If you’re lucky, your company will play a recurring role in their life.

The problems with many customer profile and persona approaches are that:

  • They’re static. They show a snapshot of someone instead of a progression over time.
  • They assume that your business is the center of your customer’s world. Nowadays there are so many demands on our time that assuming that the customer will even find you or spend more than a few minutes with your brand is risky.
  • They’re not formatted in a way that helps you understand what to change, build, or test next.


So existing tools can be problematic. But treating your customer as the protagonist can provide your business with incredible competitive advantages. Here are a few templates that I found to be more helpful as a business owner, system designer, and consultant to blend a better understanding of the people you’re serving, with guidance on how to decide what to do next.


Customer profile

In their book, “Value Proposition Design,” the Strategyzer team provides a simple method for organizing information related to your customer’s needs, pains, and gains. The best part of this method is that you rank each bucket on its own scale from critical to nice to have. The result of the exercise tells you which areas would be the most valuable to focus your energy on.

The process

  • List out needs, pains, and gains (one per sticky note).
  • Rank the relative importance of the items in each of the three categories.


Decision time

Compare your value proposition’s capabilities, pain relievers, and gain creators to the customer profile. If you don’t have a good match for the more important needs, pains and gains then you should consider revisiting your product’s features or marketing. It’s possible that your product doesn’t address your customer’s top concerns. Or it could be that your customers aren’t yet aware that they have a problem and need to be educated first.

This tool is especially helpful if you’re looking at improving an existing business. Limiting the scope to an area of someone’s life helps prevent the exercise from getting overwhelming.


Customer transformation

Tara Gentile advises thinking about your Customer’s Journey as they go from being curious about something to achieving their ultimate goal. This is a little different from other customer journey techniques that focus on just the interactions between your customer and your business and products. So I’ll call it a “customer transformation” to avoid any confusion.

You can break the transformation down into smaller steps, each with a set of goals, questions, and frustrations for that point in the journey.

For example, the customer’s ultimate goal might be to become a marathon runner. But there are multiple steps you need to take to go from enthusiast to a successful qualifier. You could list their intermediate goals, like running consistently, and the problems or questions that are blocking them from moving forward.

The process

  • Start at the beginning of their journey. What are your customers curious about?
  • Consider their end goal. Where do they ultimately want to end up? What new identity are they striving for?
  • Write out intermediate transformations that they will need to go through to get there. (Your customers may or may not realize what those transformations are.)
  • Explore the internal struggle during each intermediate transformation. What goals, questions, and problems do they have during their journey to the ultimate goal? What are they saying, doing, thinking, and feeling?


Decision time

Building out a product or service is just a matter of choosing an intermediate step in the transformation and creating something to help your customers get to the other side. You can grow from there.

Each intermediate transformation could be a service, product, set of products, event, or free content. Questions or frustrations can be directly added to your marketing and help guides, or inspire the creation of features to address them.

The advantage of this method is that it helps you more clearly see the difference between what you think customers need to be doing and how they would describe their desired transformation. This approach is especially helpful for coaches or consultants that are trying to guide someone along a path. It could also be useful for designers working on products with a learning curve, where the needs of beginners and power users will be different.


A day in the life

Shadowing people in their day job or observing them in their home is a popular technique in design thinking firms. It provides more context and can help you better understand why people behave the way they do. If you can hear their thoughts as well, you’ll get more information about how they’re feeling and why.

The process

Write down what each customer type does during their daily life by observing or interviewing them:

  • What activities are they doing?
  • Who are they interacting with?
  • What objects or technology are they interacting with?
  • How are they responding to their environment?


Decision time

Think about how your product or service would fit into their life. Solutions for someone with large blocks of quiet time to focus vs. someone running errands in the rain may be completely different. This will also tell you which devices they’ll be likely to use, if they’re in a more formal or informal mood, if they need to get something done quickly or are looking for an entertaining or educational break. Understanding their environment and tools can help you hone in on the best format for packaging the solution.

This method can be used whether you have a product in mind or not. It will help you identify new problems and see how your product or service could fit into your customer’s life.


Life timeline

If you’re trying to build a business relationship beyond a one-time transaction, having a view of the customer’s entire life could be an extremely helpful tool. If a life event changes their family life or social network, that could mean a brand new relationship for your business.

For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has information and benefits for Veterans from before they leave service through their burial. When they get married or have children, their dependents are also eligible for benefits. Attorneys or Veteran Service Organizations may help Veterans submit claims documentation and check their status. Doctors may submit medical records. The events build over the course of their life, contributing to a unique history and network for each Veteran. Designing an experience with that in mind can lead to drastically different outcomes than only focusing on needs during a single transaction, such as submitting a claim for benefits.

The process

  • Think about how people interact with your business over time, and the life stages or life events that would trigger them to seek you out. Also consider when you would need them to take action. (ex. retirement planning)
  • Follow them from the first logical touchpoint with you through the last.
  • Don’t forget about their social network. (ex. if they refer a friend, have a family life event, or consult with a professional whom you will also need to work with.)


Decision time

Do you want to focus on one part of their life journey? Or adapt with them? Adapt your content to the words, images, questions, and interests that your customers have at that point in their life. Recognize that your customer’s profile and the products they purchase from you may vary over time. You can also track patterns to recommend what they might like next given where they are in life.

It makes sense to tackle this method later on, to complement the other techniques which provide more of a short-term view. This is especially helpful for companies that serve customers in a variety of life stages. Even if you don’t plan on serving all generations, it could be helpful to understand where people are and what they’re thinking about during the stage before and after they’re interacting with your service. That could help you identify partners to work with.


The customer protagonist template

This template was inspired by the previous techniques plus research into how fiction writers develop the characters in their stories. It combines some of the same elements, such as your customer’s aspirations, life beyond your business or product, and transformation over time.

With this template, you’ll dig into their past through in-depth information such as any habits, knowledge, stereotypes, or insecurities they bring to the table. You’ll be reminded of what they’re trying to do in the short term, and what they want to accomplish in the future. Grab your free copy of the 5-page workbook below.

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The process

  • Choose a point in their life or transformation journey and create a protagonist profile to fully flesh out each “character.” Think of your customers as the heroes in the story. Your business or product plays a supporting role.
  • Start with the rows that are most relevant to your design challenge and build from there.
  • Fill out the present column, then go back and try to fill in the past and future columns.
  • If one of the rows doesn’t change over time, just write it once and draw an arrow through the rest.
  • You could string many of these together to represent the entire journey to their ultimate goal, or their whole life. That’s an effective strategy to see how their life and habits evolve based on both your product or service and other factors influencing their life.


Decision time

Now you have an in-depth map of who your customer is at that moment, what they’re trying to do and where they’ve been. You can design a solution that meets them where they are, that directly addresses their concerns, and gets them one step closer to their future. Once they have your solution, their goals, needs, and behaviors may change. So you can continue to build out these profiles to see how someone progresses over time.

This technique is best for after you’ve tried the other ones. It could be a helpful reference whenever you’re building or working on updates to that part of the experience or marketing your solution. It can help you shift mindsets from the creator to a consumer of the product or service by becoming fully immersed in your customer’s world.


Get started

I’ve found that gathering and focusing on information about the people you’re trying to serve can completely change the course of your strategy and inspire a flood of new ideas for products and partnerships. Understanding the set of customers involved in your system can make a huge difference in designing a systems architecture and experience that meets them where they are and grows with them.

If I’m going to be creating for the same group of people for a while, I like to build out all of the above representations, in that order. There will be some overlap, but the act of exploring their life and needs from different angles will help you to identify core themes and uncover insights that one representation by itself might not reveal. It can take a lot of time for the first round but after that, the documents are easy to use and update.

Related reading

If you’re interested in tools for thinking about and documenting how other people view the world, check out this article on stakeholder analysis. You’ll find more ideas for how to think about stakeholder needs, preferences, and networks in order to design for better outcomes.

Have you tried building and using customer profiles? Which formats have you tried? How did you use them in your design process?

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